News: The Write Stuff

Surprising prosecutor campaign expected to end with no surprise

Oct 6, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

Changing prosecutors isn't the same thing as changing the prosecutor's office. Perhaps the best proof of that came when Michael Barrett, chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party, called a meeting to assure assistant prosecutors that their jobs are safe — even though their boss is losing his.

The GOP has controlled the prosecutor's office for seven decades, and the result is a highly politicized operation, according to Fanon Rucker, who is running against State Treasurer Joe Deters.

"One of the clearest examples is when Mike Barrett called a meeting of the prosecutors to have them meet and talk about the morale of the troops and to assure them they could work for Joe Deters," Rucker says. "They are public employees. They are not employees of the Republican Party. At least they're not supposed to be."

Deters is running because a sex scandal forced incumbent Prosecutor Mike Allen to drop out of the race. The two men have much in common. Deters was county prosecutor from 1992-98, and Allen succeeded him.

Both are former chairs of the Hamilton County GOP.

"I don't believe Joe's going to come in and clean it up," Rucker says. "He's going to solidify what they've had for 72 years. His stated intention was that, because of the events that have happened here, the party asked (him) to come back. He later said he's doing it because he likes the prosecutor's job. That's more of the same. That says absolutely it's not going to change."

Like Allen, Deters is under fire on his current job because of a scandal, although his involves money instead of sex (see "Deters Is Safe at Home," page 17). And like Allen, Deters earlier dropped out of a political race in deference to party leaders. In 2002 he dropped plans to run for state attorney general, allowing GOP officeholders Jim Petro and Betty Montgomery to trade jobs without fear of a primary election fight.

Deters and Allen share another trait — as county prosecutors, both kept their staffs almost perfectly white. The office currently has 164 attorneys.

"That makes them one of the largest law firms in the city," Rucker says.

But only eight African Americans have ever served as assistant prosecutors in Hamilton County, according to Rucker.

"I can name them for you," he says, and then proceeds to do just that.

Deters didn't return a call from CityBeat requesting an interview, but he likes to brag about his vigorous pursuit of the death penalty when he was prosecutor. He made it policy not to agree to plea bargains for lesser sentences when a case was eligible for the death penalty.

As a result, Hamilton County accounts for more prisoners on death row than any other county in Ohio, according to Rucker.

"That concerns me," he says. "There's a lot of discretion when it comes to trying a death penalty eligible case. I've encouraged the adoption of the guidelines for the federal system. It's much more objective."

On his campaign Web site, Deters lists under "Significant Cases" 16 sentences of death issued during his term. But one significant — in fact, history-making — case is nowhere to be found on the list. It was under Deters that Jerome Campbell of the West End was sentenced to die.

Last year, acting on the Ohio Parole Authority's recommendation of clemency — the first since the state resumed executions — Gov. Bob Taft commuted Campbell's sentence to life in prison (see "Life at Last," issue of July 2-8, 2003).

Therein, too, lies a shared trait of both Deters' and Allen's terms as prosecutor. During both terms, appeals courts have taken Hamilton County prosecutors to task for violating defendants' rights in death penalty cases.

"The Supreme Court of Ohio has repeatedly admonished the prosecutor's office under Deters and Allen for not providing evidence that could be exculpatory, for making improper remarks in their closing statements," Rucker says. "When you do things the Supreme Court says are wrong, that's not proper. I believe in aggressive prosecution. I believe in going after folks who are doing wrong. I believe in pounding the table. I don't believe in being unethical."

Both the Hamilton County Democratic Party and the Charter Committee of Cincinnati have endorsed Rucker. If the Democrats had bothered to put a candidate on the ballot this year, he or she might actually enjoy an unheard-of advantage in the race, because Allen dropped out too late for Deters to replace him as anything but a write-in candidate.

Instead, Rucker is a write-in candidate as well. Given Deters' name recognition and the county's solid Republican majority, he's the pick as most likely to win the election.

Former Assistant Prosecutor Melissa Powers is still on the ballot as a write-in candidate but has hinted she'll withdraw if the Republican Party wants.

Rucker is running with the inevitable financial handicap borne by political newcomers and Democrats in Hamilton County. Still, the party has been helpful, he says.

"They've been assisting in raising money," he says. "The biggest push we've been getting is from the Kerry-Edwards people. They are very excited that I'm in this race, and they've been very generous with their resources."

Rucker faces a tough struggle against a proven vote-getter, and his campaign Web site isn't even working yet. As of Oct. 5, its only message was, " coming soon."

The election is less than a month away. ©